Posted on Tuesday, September 1st, 2009 at 3:19 pm
Author: Mark Farnsworth
The previous installment in the Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) retrospective discusses “Spartacus.”
James Mason’s slippery disintegration from debonair paedophile to desperate murderer is the key to Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladamir Nabokov’s Lolita. Mason plays on his Gainsborough Studio anti-heroes from “The Man In Grey” and “The Wicked Lady” and twists them into the snivelling coward Humbert Humbert. The resulting performance, intelligently crafted, allows “Lolita’s” more unfilmable material to be suggested with innuendo and comedy.
Like Jack Torrance in “The Shining,” Humbert is the worst kind of academic, achingly superior and dreadfully pretentious. Any shred of written talent revealed by his spiteful narration is so thoroughly warped that we are left in little doubt with what kind of self-congratulatory intellect we are dealing with.
Humbert swans into Ramsdale, New England looking for digs before he begins his professorship at Beardsley College. Gently horrified at the vulgarity of the widow Charlotte Haze, Humbert is ready to turn her lodging down flat before he spies her daughter Lolita sunbathing in a monstrous sombrero. When asked by the dreadfully eager Mrs Haze what sealed the deal Humbert’s reply is as dry as the Sahara, “Your cherry pie.”
The writer finds himself, as Jack does, snared between a woman he despises and a child seemingly mature beyond her years. Jack’s abuse of his son is physical and largely unplanned, born out of his own childish frustration, whereas Humbert’s exploitation of Lolita is sexual and cunningly premeditated.
Both men believe wholeheartedly in the paltry excuse that they are driven to their horrendous paths by their child’s’ special powers. Jack is fearful of Danny’s ability to ‘shine’ whereas Humbert blames Lolita for his seduction of her:
“What drives me insane is the two fold nature of this nymphet, of every nymphet perhaps, this mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity.”
Because she is blinded by the European sophisticate and the stunted conventions of 1950s small town America, it is arguable how complicit Charlotte Haze is in Humbert’s grooming of her daughter. Seven years of sexual frustration is thrust his way in a matter of weeks in an assault of porcelain cats, reproduction art and cha cha cha dancing. Her daughter is a spoilt brat, no doubt as over-compensation for the loss of her father, but it is obvious on more than one occasion that she turns a blind eye to Humbert’s leering gaze so she can pursue her own romantic conquest of the paedophile.
The irony of “Lolita” is that it was filmed in Great Britain, deemed more liberal and progressive when dealing with such sensitive material. However, the America Kubrick portrays is a hyporcritical mix of good Christian values and repressed sexual desire, which surely fits the stereotype of the English in the 1950s as well (?).
This secret world where libido lurks behind white picket fences helps cast Lolita as a love rival to Charlotte rather than her daughter. Everyone seems to be in bed with everyone else. Humbert is told by Jean Farlow, the mother of Lolita’s best friend Mona, “When you get to know me better you’ll find I’m extremely broad minded. In fact John and I are both broad minded.” The Farlows ship Mona off to the aptly named Camp Climax every summer, so they can presumably swing to their hearts content. The Camp is far from the safe haven the parents think it is as the girls obviously use it for their own sexual experimentation with the proprietor’s son.
The denigration of parental responsibility allows creatures like Humbert Humbert to ingratiate themselves into vulnerable families like the Hazes. It enables the playwright and pornographer Clare Quilty to seduce lonely mothers like Charlotte whilst luring their children into starring in his ‘art movies’. Even when Charlotte discovers that Humbert has only married her to remain close to Lolita, she still sees her as competition for her husband’s affections rather than the victim of a despicable man.
Quilty appears in a number of guises, amusingly played by an over-indulged Peter Sellers. He is Humbert’s nemesis, a hidden side in a terrible love triangle with Lolita. Like a perverted Dickensian ghost, he appears three times to tear Lolita away from Humbert once Charlotte has met her tragic end. Every time the sick chameleon takes in Humbert, who is too busy slowly unravelling from his illegal relationship to notice Quilty’s scheme.
What divides audiences is the nature of Lolita herself. Near the end of the film she reveals she engineered Quilty’s capture of her, as she “loved him” just as it is she who initiates the sexual relationship with Humbert after his ridiculous failed attempt to lure her into bed. To add further to Humbert’s woes Lolita says of Quilty, “He wasn’t a normal person, he was a genius.” Surely a dagger thrust through the inflated ego of the academic when a mere television writer is mentioned in such grandiose terms.
Quilty in his disguise as Dr. Zempf, describes Lolita thus, “She either has total control or none. We can’t decide.” This ambiguous argument, coupled with the film’s delicious MGM cinematography and innuendo-packed script, lead us to some difficult questions about the nature of child abuse and our tabloid view of paedophilia, as well as Lolita’s role in her inappropriate relationships.
Yet what we must ultimately remember, like Kubrick and Nabokov did, is that Zempf’s/Quilty’s statement is uttered by a paedophile to another paedophile with the same degree of distorted self-justification. We must remember that Lolita was a child failed by the very people who were supposed to protect her and in that respect Kubrick’s film is remarkably and chillingly accurate.
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